I spent this weekend at a Rabbis Without Borders rabbinical student retreat on “Spirituality, Social Justice, and the Rabbinate.” Students from several different schools gathered at the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown, Md.: Besides Hebrew College, there were contingents from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical School, HUC Los Angeles and Cincinnati campuses, Jewish Theological Seminary, Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies, Academy of Jewish Religion, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. (Update: I very unfortunately forgot to note the fabulous representation from ALEPH – Alliance for Jewish Renewal – Smicha Program *and* International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism — which I regret. It was an unintentional mechitza.)
One of these things is not like the other.
YCT is a new-ish school training men to become Modern Orthodox rabbis “who are open, non-judgmental, knowledgeable, empathetic, and eager to transform Orthodoxy into a movement that meaningfully and respectfully interacts with all Jews, regardless of affiliation, commitment, or background.” The idea is to change Orthodoxy from the inside, as one of the students explained.
The impact of their participation that I felt the most was in the davennen. Their school policy requires, in accordance with Orthodox principles, that the YCT students not daven alongside women. The way this is generally achieved in the Orthodox world is via a mechitza, a partition to separate those participating in tefila.
This presented a challenge for the prayer services, since all of the other schools practice egalitarianism, not least in that they admit both women and men. The tefila committee, which met before the retreat (and of which I was not a part), decided on separation via what was dubbed a “tri-chitza“: spaces reserved for men, for women, and for mixed seating. The configuration was used for four of the five services we davenned together; the fifth, lead by the YCT students, was set up in a more traditional way, with seating for men and seating for women.
As one of the retreat faculty members (who is a huge fan of mechitza) explained, the idea developed as a result of an evening of joyful, raucous, downright Dionysian prayer, after which the rabbis reflected that if women had been present, it might have turned into an orgy. Thenceforth, women and men prayed separately.
On a visceral level, I find mechitza loathsome. Historically it has been a tool for silencing and disempowering women by marginalizing their prayer and limiting their participation: Women are not counted as part of the minyan (the quorum of 10 adults needed for prayer). In many spaces, women are also not allowed to lead tefila, to read Torah, to have aliyot. What’s more, the service often only takes place in front of the men’s side. In extreme cases, women are relegated to a balcony where it might be difficult to see or hear anything at all.
In the Modern Orthodox world, these latter elements are generally not found, but the purpose of a mechitza is still to ensure that people daven with those of the same gender. Which is problematic. It’s heteronormative; it’s based on the false assumption of a gender binary; it creates potentially unsafe situations for genderqueer folks. Ultimately, it is a space created entirely on the terms of and for the needs of cisgendered men.
I go to a pluralistic school, so I am used to experiencing all different kinds of davennen. Hebrew College was founded to challenge the conventional wisdom that the Jewish world can be pluralistic in all settings except for prayer. And we still struggle with community tefila — which, to be honest, usually means that no one is completely satisfied with services. But egalitarianism is our bright line. Everything else goes. This weekend was meant to be about pluralism, too. It is so important, especially for movement-based students, to talk to one another, learn from our differences, and experience other ways of doing Judaism. This weekend suggested that my pluralism might have limits.
To be fair, everyone was pushed out of their comfort zones this weekend. When I walked into the prayer space on Friday morning, I thought, “What? You call this a mechitza?” It was just a table with chairs on either side. Mechitzot can take many forms, to be sure, but they are usually solid partitions, or at least a line of person-high potted plants (as in the case of a Chabad minyan I went to a few times when I was in D.C.). The point is to obscure the sides from one another. This mechitza did not in any way do that, so it was largely symbolic. And I am not denigrating it by so calling it, as much of what is important in Judaism is symbolic, or might seem within the mere letter of the law and not the spirit. Indeed, the symbolic nature of the mechitza made it hurt more, as it seemed to be separation just for separation’s sake. I think that it was probably not the mechitza to which the YCT students are accustomed. Nor was the davennen. For me, the pain stemmed from the fact that because of the mechitza, the space felt like it belonged to just one contingent. I became an outsider, praying on their terms. Most uncomfortable of all, I felt like I was condoning the mechitza with my presence.
But I don’t consider my discomfort and the potential discomfort of the YCT guys to be morally equivalent. Their discomfort is because of an incursion on their male privilege; mine is the result of oppression.
I do feel that it is important to point out that my painful experience had to do with the issue of mechitza and not with YCT students themselves. Their hands are tied, to a certain extent: a condition of their continued enrollment is adherence to the tents of Orthodoxy as laid out by their school. And these are good guys, and I think they are fully aware of the difficulty mechitza presents. But their project is to struggle within Orthodoxy, and that is not my fight.
(Sidebar: The first time I encountered YCT was in Washington, D.C., in 2009, at the Jewish Federation’s annual General Assembly, where the institution had a booth. I was just beginning to think about rabbinical school and hadn’t heard of this one. I stopped and spoke with them for at least 20 minutes before they told me that, unfortunately, I was not able to attend their school. “But we hold women in high regard and believe that there is a special place for women in Judaism!” Completely annoyed, I left abruptly, but not without the tote bag they had given me. But as much as I feel a twinge of irritation every time I see it, I continue to own it because it is, hands down, the best cloth bag I’ve ever used. Roomy, more square than rectangular, sturdy, and with wide shoulder straps. It asks, “The Rabbinate. Is it in you?” To which I answer, “Yes! Just not with you.”)
I’ll admit that I took a perverse pleasure in the fact that the men’s section was small, at the edge of the room, and not in front of the tefila leaders or Torah readers. In other words, their experience approximated that of women in Orthodox settings (with the important difference that the separation had been effected at their own request). But I hated that I thought that. And it didn’t alleviate my own hurt. And none of these feelings were conducive to my being in a prayerful space.
I would love to see Orthodox Judaism become a more welcoming space for all Jews. And I don’t know whether I can be any part of it.